The allure of socialism

The urge to improve the world is a powerful one.  We see suffering and deprivation and stunted lives, and we want a world in which as many as possible can live decently and aspire to live fulfilled lives instead.  We think like this because we are human and share what Adam Smith called 'sympathy' with our fellow human beings.  Today we would call that 'empathy,' and it is what drives us to improve the lot of others if we can.

Some people yearn to replace this imperfect world with a better one conceived in the imagination, and in their mind they echo the lines of Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:


"Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire

To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,

Would not we shatter it to bits -- and then

Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!"


F A Hayek called it "The Fatal Conceit" to suppose that we can, with our limited mental resources, think up a better world than the one created by the input of countless people over aeons of time.  It is part of the allure of Socialism, which in theory proposes a world in which we are all more equal, and in which we do things collectively for the common good.  Socialism in practice has always been different, involving oppression, deprivation, blighted, limited lives, and often torture and mass murder.  Its practical record has barely diminished the enthusiasm its acolytes accord its theory.  Many of them become apologists for the atrocities committed when it is applied in practice.

The spontaneous order produced when people are allowed to interact freely with others contains more knowledge than any individual mind can hold.  It is faster to react to changes that could affect it adversely, and it does not involve forcing people to conform to the lifestyles that others would have them live.  It gives men and women space to improve their lives by pursuing their own aspirations rather than any goals that others would have them follow.

If it is folly to suppose that this world can be replaced by one dreamed up in the imagination, it is certainly not folly to suppose that it can be improved.  We can address its perceived shortcomings, experimenting with ways to overcome them, and persisting with those that achieved the desired results in practice.  The last 250 years have seen spectacular improvements in the human condition, and the last 25 years have seen many of those improvements rolled out on a global scale.  Advances have been made by virtually every measure of the human condition.  People live longer, no longer prone to diseases that ravaged their predecessors.  Fewer women die in childbirth, fewer children die in infancy.  Fewer starve or are malnourished.  More are literate, more educated.  It is a record of achievement unparalleled in the history of our species.

Karl Popper referred to a process of "piecemeal social engineering" by which we seek to improve the world by judicious inputs targeted at its failings, a process of evolution rather than the revolution that Marx sought and which his latterday followers still seek.  It is an empirical process that concentrates on practical improvements.

It may be true that young people are less patient, and more inclined to embrace idealistic schemes of total change than are older people, some of whom have lived through the catastrophes brought about when ideologies have been imposed upon the real world.  It seems paradoxical that many young people, the ones who cope more readily with a world of flux and change, should embrace an ideology whose goal is a settled world.  It seems equally paradoxical that many older people, who are supposedly ill at ease with churn and change, should embrace the system of markets and trade that is characterized by constant innovation.  It might be experience of reality that explains this apparent paradox.

Many advocates of socialism suggest that the tyranny introduced by socialist regimes in practice is an add-on that distorts and perverts ‘true’ socialism, but it seems more likely that compulsion is an evil lurking at the very heart of socialism.  It requires people to behave in ways which, given a choice, they would not freely choose.  Therefore they must be constrained to behave as all good citizens of the new utopia must…